A Day that will live in infamy

CHICAGO — The back-to-back World Series flags flew at half-staff over U.S. Cellular Field Friday afternoon as the city’s South Side succumbed to overwhelming sorrow upon hearing the news that a hero was not to return.
A week after holding a rally celebrating his team’s second consecutive championship, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams spoke to fans under much more somber circumstances this time, announcing that Dewon Day, relief ace and undoubtedly the franchise’s singular figure, would not be returning for a third stellar season.
“With great sadness, I’m here to announce that Dewon Day has been claimed by the Boston Red Sox for personal reasons,” Williams said, holding back tears.  “We will issue no further comment at this time.”
Boos washed over the podium as Williams retreated hastily into the stadium’s offices.  Chicago Police reported more than dozen fights, but no arrests were made as most combatants did not have the heart to continue, instead choosing to embrace each other in consolation over the bad news.
Most fans stood stunned, silent.
“Why?” asked one Sox fan who wished to remain anonymous.  “I mean…”
He trailed off, his moist eyes cast down 35th Street.
Answers are in short supply. Calls placed to Day’s agent, Dave Stewart, were not returned.
However, a source close to the White Sox said Day was worn down by the power of his own celebrity, and requested a trade to a team out of the spotlight.  The organization, knowing they could never truly recoup Day’s value in a trade, chose simply to place him on waivers.
The confusing and mysterious circumstances of his departure are fitting of his time with the Sox, during which he was an equally elusive figure.
FROM OUT OF NOWHERE
Even Williams didn’t know what he had when he selected Day in the 2005 Rule 5 Draft.  Day had been a talented but underachieving right-handed relief pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays system.
As it turned out, a literally minor move changed the fate of the franchise forever.
Day would later disclose he had been working through an injury suffered in a riding lawnmower accident.  As he regained strength, he began to turn the baseball world upside-down with only two pitches.  One of them would soon earn its own name.
He averaged three strikeouts for every four batters he faced in Birmingham, with most outs coming by way of unsuccessful bunt attempts.  Day joined the major leagues May 28 as Williams sought a solution for a relief corps that went bottom-up during the second month of the season.
Day didn’t just join the bullpen — he was the bullpen.  He became the first American League pitcher to appear in more than 100 games in one season, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that his team was already 45 games into the season when he joined it.
Along with games pitched record, Day became the first relief pitcher to lead the league in wins (24) and innings pitched (239 1/3).  He also was the only player named to an All-Star team after the break.
“We’re like the bullpen equivalent of Group 4,” Boone Logan said that year.  “We call ourselves ‘The Others.’  Ozzie [Guillen] really only has to visit the mound once.”
A MYTH, A LEGEND
The secret to his success: a slider that broke from the hitter’s front shoulder to shin height in the opposite batter’s box.  The movement was so devastating that television announcer Hawk Harrelson called it “the Doomerang,” saying that if Day had enough distance to work with, the pitch would eventually come back to him.
The pitch confused hitters, and often angered them.  On four separate occasions hitters charged the mound after striking out.  Minnesota Twins infielder Nick Punto was suspended for the duration of the season after throwing his bat at the mound one night in late August.  Day was not injured.
In fact, Day never suffered an injury despite his incredible workload.  During one stretch when he appeared in 62 consecutive games, Guillen said Day often persuaded him to give him the ball.
“I thought our phone only dialed out to the bullpen before this kid come along,” Guillen said.  “I had no idea it received calls.  I wanted to change the number.  Day, he won’t take days off.”
Day worked in 251 out of 279 regular season games he spent with the White Sox, including 20 of 23 postseason games during the Sox’s back-to-back championship runs.  His pitching catapulted the franchise into stratospheric financial success, rivaling the New York Yankees in revenue.
Yet as the money rushed in, Day opted not to stake a claim.
MAN OF MYSTERY
Since fans were nearly guaranteed to see the sport’s best pitcher throw every day, White Sox games became the hottest ticket in baseball.  The season-ticket base doubled in size, and even though the organization raised its ticket prices an average of $25 for each section, demand continued to surge.  Television and radio ratings, and along with it advertising prices, increased at a commensurate rate.
The team also tried another way to increase profits when Williams sent Logan, Ehren Wassermann and David Aardsma to Charlotte with corresponding roster moves to be announced.
The three pitchers were not replaced until four weeks later, after the Major League Baseball Players’ Association filed a grievance accusing the White Sox of intentionally reducing their roster size.  The White Sox settled with the union, and recalled Wassermann, Logan and Ryan Bukvich soon after.  Those three pitchers combined to work in seven games over the last two months of the season.
Day, meanwhile, not only made the league minimum — he refused millions of dollars worth of endorsements.  Sources close to Day say he spent most of his offseason in litigation against parties attempting to cash in on his likeness and “The Doomerang” name, which he trademarked.
Official details about Day are scant, as he rarely spoke to the media.  One Chicago newspaper kept track of the amount of words Day said to reporters.  At season’s end, they tallied eight words: “Excuse me,” and “Oh my God, look behind you!”
But even as Day attempted to keep his distance, he couldn’t help but draw attention with his performances.  In 2008, he became the first pitcher to win 30 games since 1968, finishing with 36.  He added to his trophy case, taking home the MVP, Cy Young and World Series MVP awards for the second consecutive season.
After Williams’ brief press conference, though, there will be no encore for 2009.
CITY, FRANCHISE MOURN
Williams’ words sent shock waves of grief through the South Side.  Many city schools sent students home early.
“Just a lot of kids crying,” said Herk Flerkberger, principal of nearby Ward Elementary School.  “More than usual.”
While the split surprised the team, sources say the split was amicable.  Day’s No. 60 will be retired, as will No. 6 and No. 0, just to be safe.  In addition, the organization is also considering retiring day games.
Williams has his own issues to deal with.  After telling reporters he had planned to spend the entire offseason on vacation, not even breaking to attend the winter meetings, he now finds himself in need of three or four relievers.  With Day now sporting Red Sox instead of white ones, the future is no longer secure.
Instead, a new day has unexpectedly dawned for the Chicago White Sox.
The forecast calls for clouds.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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